End of the Line
by David Lavallee
Illustrations by Nathan King
He had been standing in line for what seemed like ages. Looking at his watch, he was reminded that it had died. Checking the time was a nervous tick, and no matter how often he looked, it would always be three thirty-three. The park was flooded with people, and their raised voices mixed inharmoniously in the scorching August air. From time to time he would attempt to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, but it demanded too much concentration. His focus was elsewhere. The slide captured his attention.
Adamson’s Water Park attracted hoards of customers during the summer season. It housed a wave pool with an artificial white sand beach. People from all walks of life fought for a spot along the fake shore. Most days, young men and women dominated the landscape, driven by a primal need to showcase their bodies. Families and older couples retreated to the picnic tables. Circling the park, a slow-moving river carried laid-back patrons who rested on tubes. It served as an escape for anyone wishing to dodge the crowds. A number of small water slides attracted children, and anyone looking for a safe thrill. A step up from those, Adamson’s provided larger slides for the more adventurous. They each scored a seven on the ride intensity scale established by the Society of Amusement Park Standards (SAPS). But none of these rides compared to Free Fall. Free Fall scored a ten plus, which is the highest intensity rating in the world. Riders disappeared into a dark tunnel, dropping so fast that the name of the slide became terribly appropriate. It was impossible to tell where they came out on the other side. Free Fall towered over the park, casting a long shadow from entrance to exit.
“Let’s just forget it, Tom. The line’s too long. We’ve been waiting forever, and my stomach’s upset.” Mary rubbed her exposed mid-section. Tom checked his watch again. “Stop that! Why’d you even wear that thing?” Mary asked.
“I…I guess I didn’t think. Force of habit,” Tom replied. For a moment, he considered Mary’s plea to give up waiting. Just for a moment. “We’ve waited this long. The choice was made back there.” He pointed past hundreds of people. Mary scowled.
They were at least a couple of hours away, and they had already waited for one. Free Fall only allows for one rider every thirty seconds, and that is when everything operates smoothly. Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. Once the Point of No Return is crossed, all riders enter into a contract with the park that says they have to go down the slide. If they panic and cause a disturbance, the slide operators have the authority to force them down. The park depends on a steady flow of bodies. This is the reason minors are forbidden from Free Fall. Only adults with the power to choose for themselves are allowed to cross the final threshold.
“I don’t think I can go through with it. My stomach is really starting to turn over,” Mary said.
“I think it’s in your head. You don’t want to go down the slide. I get it. Wait until we reach the Point of No Return, and then leave if you have to.” Tom wiped the sweat from his forehead and felt the radiating burn of a distant sun. Then he looked at his watch again.
Mary often faced the accusation from Tom that she never seemed to follow anything through to completion. She always had an excuse to give up. When Tom first proposed, she claimed that she needed more time to decide. A year later, when he proposed again, she told him that she no longer believed in the institution of marriage. “Can’t we love each other without wearing shackles?” She protested. Tom heartily disagreed with her newfound philosophy. “There’s freedom in binding,” he assured her. But all she could say was, “That makes no sense!”
During the next half hour, Tom and Mary observed their surroundings. A pigeon pecked at a dropped pretzel, and Tom wondered if it was true that birds were unable to pass gas. He recalled a conversation from his youth in which another boy claimed to have fed a seagull some Alka-Seltzer. The boy stuffed it in some bait and watched the bird eat without a care. He laughed with delight to see the bird crash into the ocean, dying from the inside. Mary watched a little girl eat a strawberry ice cream cone. The ice cream dribbled down the cone and covered the girl’s hands. Why doesn’t she wipe it up? Mary thought. The girl ate, showing little concern for the sticky pink fluid that flowed down her sleeve. An old clown caught their attention when he accidentally popped a balloon animal. Neither Tom nor Mary had ever seen a clown fail at such a simple trick, and though they despised clowns, it made them feel sorry for the elderly man behind the red nose. They felt worse when his audience of captivated children began to sob. One girl screamed, “It’s dead! He killed it!” The clown fled the scene, forgetting his bag.
The couple moved closer to the Point of No Return. No one could mistake it. The park went to great lengths to ensure that their customers knew the arrangement. In bold blue letters it read, NO TURNING BACK. MUST GO FORWARD. ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS. Along the way, they posted many smaller signs describing their ride policy. Tom read one of them aloud to Mary. “Free Fall is the most thrilling water slide in the world. Because of this, it attracts hundreds of thousands of committed riders. Adamson’s Water Park is focused on providing the most people with the most fun. We created the Point of No Return as a means to maximize fun. We understand that many would reconsider riding Free Fall once they reached the top. This would create massive delays and much disturbance, which would severely tarnish the experience of the other riders. The Point of No Return is exactly that. If you cannot commit, please consider any of our other fun water slides. If you are serious about having a good time, pass the Point of No Return and prepare to have a blast.”
“What did you eat that made your stomach upset?” Tom asked.
“Nothing but an egg and some toast. I eat it all the time,” Mary said.
“Maybe it was a bad egg. We’re only a few minutes away. Are you in or out?” Mary held her stomach. Tom moved close to her face, as if to kiss her, and whispered, “I want you to go up with me.”
Adamson’s used to station low-level employees at the threshold, but found that they were often too lenient with riders. They lacked the authority to prevent people from breaking their contract to ride. Once people had discovered that the Point of No Return was less than it claimed to be, the occurrence of disruptions skyrocketed. Free Fall experienced massive ride delays, which forced the park to get more serious. The entrance is now guarded by a park manager and a member of the security unit. Since the change, only one person has come back through the threshold: a sixty-three year old woman who dropped dead of a heart attack.
“I don’t know, I don’t think I should do this,” Mary said. Tom rolled his eyes and looked away. They were only a few paces away from the final threshold. “I really can’t.”
“And why can’t you? Is it because your stomach hurts, or because you’re afraid?” Tom asked sternly. He stood at the entrance of the Point of No Return. The two park officials looked at him, arms folded. “Just come with me!” Tom yelled.
“I can’t! Go, but I’m not. I shouldn’t,” Mary said as tears formed in her eyes.
“Sir, are you riding Free Fall, or are you turning around? You have to decide immediately,” said the park manager. Tom peered back at Mary, who now had tears streaming down her face, and then took the final step through the threshold.
“Ma’am, are you going to join him?” asked the security guard. The couple gazed at each other, separated by an impassable gulf.
“No,” Mary said. “I’m pregnant.”
Tom pressed on the gate that divided them, but it would not budge. “Mary! Mary! Why didn’t you tell me? I can’t ride this. You have to let me go!” Tom pleaded with the guards.
“Sir, you know our policy. We can’t let you through. You have no choice but to go down the slide,” said the park manager. Mary raised her hand and motioned for Tom to go. Then she held her stomach and walked away with her eyes toward the sky. Tom watched her disappear into the crowd, from behind bars. “Please, sir, I need you to move forward.”
Twenty minutes of steady upward flow left Tom alone with his thoughts, and that much closer to the top of the slide. At first, he tried looking for Mary through the barricades. All of his cares were on her, and more specifically, her news. His misconceptions about her refusal to join him had washed away in a moment of truth, leaving behind only anxiety and endless questions. But with each step up, each step nearer the mouth of Free Fall, Tom’s concerns drifted toward himself. So by the time he had spent twenty minutes on the other side of the Point of No Return, Tom had all but forgotten about the unborn.
A bald man with a muscular build stood ahead of Tom. The back of his head was red, and beads of sweat took turns trying to cool his scorched skin. Tom stared, and probably knew this man’s head better than anyone else in the world. It was something for his eyes while he waded in his emotions.
Behind Tom, a young woman whistled the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.
“Maybe you shouldn’t whistle that song,” Tom said.
“Excuse me?’ She replied.
“Don’t you know what happens to Clementine?” He asked.
“Who cares? Geez, if it’s bothering you, I’ll stop,” she said, with the slightest hint of sarcasm. “It’s just a tune to a song no one knows, anyway.”
“I’m sorry if I upset you. Please, keep whistling,” Tom said. The young woman shook her head.
“You kind of spoiled the mood. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re almost there.” She pointed past the bald man’s head and to the final stretch of the climb.
The summit of Free Fall can only be accessed by a gondola lift. Three passengers at a time are transported the remaining distance. Hovering hundreds of feet in the air, they are provided with a spectacular view of the entire park. When Tom stepped into the gondola, the heavy stench of rotten eggs assaulted him. The odor was so terrible that it nearly prevented him from imagining the cables snapping and the box dropping forever. He wondered if the water slide would smell the same.
The young woman clung to the metal bar lining the inside while the bald man knocked on the windows.
“This is it!” yelled the bald man.
“It’s almost over,” said the woman.
Tom said nothing, but thought of Mary somewhere distant.
Finally, and with a screech, the door opened. Tom’s nostrils burned.
The bald man burst out of the gondola and jumped head first into the black abyss that was Free Fall. For only a moment, the others heard his deep voice until it faded into nothing.
“That’s ill advised.” Tom hadn’t noticed the old man, or his southern twang, until he spoke. He wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. A half-smoked cigar rested on his gums, and he twirled it with slender, gray fingers. His silver hair fell to his shoulders and waved in the breeze. He looked out through sunglasses that were darker than death at night, and motioned for the young woman.
“I’m having second thoughts!” She yelled. The old man blew smoke out of his nostrils and smiled from ear to ear.
“The time for chosin’ is over, little lady. Now you lay down there and that’ll be that,” said the old man.
“What if I don’t want to?” She asked.
“Well, then we have us a problem.” The old man stepped toward the young woman. “Most people want out. It’s plain old-fashioned human nature. I know it. You know it. But we’re beyond that nonsense now.”
When the young woman tried to jump back into the gondola, the doors shut and the cables took it away. Tom saw her eyes widen as she shivered and shuffled toward the entrance of Free Fall.
“That’s right. Remember, you’re supposed to enjoy this,” said the old man. He helped her get into the proper position, with arms folded across the chest. Ash fell on her forehead. She didn’t make a sound when he pushed her down.
“Alright, last of all, it’s you. Step up here, and that’ll be the end of it,” said the old man.
Tom didn’t move. He simply gazed into the old man’s crackled complexion. Deep lines crisscrossed his face, disappearing down into his sunken chest. If he wasn’t dressed like a man, Tom thought, he would be only a wrinkled thing. A great terror rippled out of his heart, filling his veins with despair and washing his mind in dread. All wrong. It’s all wrong, Tom repeated to himself. He was a child, huddled in a dark corner.
“I’m sorry. Please let me go back,” Tom said.
“Son, I don’t have the patience for this. It’s time for you to go down the slide, so let’s go,” said the old man.
“No,” Tom said breathlessly. The old man threw his cigar to the ground.
“I have all authority to throw you down this slide! Now come here!”
The old man reached out his long arms to grab Tom. Tom wrapped his hands around the old man’s wrists and tried to toss him back, but he could not resist the forward momentum. The old man wrapped his hands around Tom’s neck and opened his mouth, as if to swallow him whole. Tom desperately swiped at the old man’s sunglasses. Two empty sockets glared back at him, and the old man smiled as his grip tightened. Locked together, they both fell into the dark pit of the slide. Tom let go of the old man, and everything else, as he plummeted without ever touching the sides.
A twisted figure splashed down at the bottom. He stood up in shallow water and turned around. There he waited, a long time, for the other one to come out. Reaching blindly, he found something. It was a watch — ticking away.